It's tempting to say the course is going to decide what is expected to be a nip-and-tuck battle for the Class 4A boys team title Saturday at the state cross country meet at Tsalteshi Trails behind Skyview High School.
Soldotna, last year's state champion, and Palmer are the top two contenders for the crown at the state meet, which will include 342 athletes and 60 schools.
The Stars defeated the Moose this year at the Skyview Invitational at Tsalteshi Trails, which is the Stars' home course.
However, the Moose came back to beat Soldotna at Palmer both at the Palmer Invitational and the Region III Cross Country Championships.
Mark Devenney said the meet won't be decided by the course. Devenney, who had heart surgery before the season, is not the official coach of the team this year but has taken on an increasing role as the season has gotten older.
"Somebody is going to run better than they have all year," Devenney said. "Whoever gets that guy is going to win. Last year, it was us."
Meanwhile, his runners feel Tsalteshi gives them the better chance of having a Soldotna runner be the one runner that has the surprise performance that wins state.
"We know this course backwards and forwards," Brent Knight said. "We know exactly where the key spots are. We know where people will be hurting."
Knight said the difference between Palmer's course and Tsalteshi Trails is rhythm. Palmer, without any major hills and serious twists and turns, allows a runner to keep rhythm. Tsalteshi, with at least two major hills and a plethora of twists and turns, excels at breaking rhythm.
"The Tsalteshi Trails are more mentally challenging than the Palmer course," Soldotna interim coach Dan Harbison said. "I don't know if that gives us an advantage.
"I guess we'll find out Saturday."
Harbison said injuries have definitely played a bigger part in the Soldotna-Palmer matchups this year than home-course advantage. Soldotna had a full, healthy team at the Skyview Invitational but had some injuries at the Palmer Invitational and Region III meet.
The team expects to be relatively healthy Saturday, but it will not have varsity runner Daniel Harro.
Three Stars, led by senior Andy Liebner, are hoping their knowledge of Tsalteshi helps them to the individual Class 4A crown, which would be the first for a peninsula runner under the split classification system started in 1985.
Liebner, who won the Skyview Invitational and Region III meet, appears to have the best shot along with Kodiak's Curtis Mortenson. Soldotna junior Kyle McBride and Knight also are contenders.
Mortenson was the clear favorite until he lost to Liebner and Knight at the Region III meet.
"I'd never beaten him before in my life," Liebner said. "I'd never even come close. I think he was really surprised."
While Soldotna was the only 4A boys team to qualify from the peninsula, both the Kenai and Skyview girls teams will run Saturday.
The big story in the girls race is East senior Kikkan Randall, who is looking for her third straight Class 4A title. The last to win at least three in a row was Kodiak's Kristi Klinnert -- now Kristi Waythomas. She took four titles from 1983 to 1986.
Skyview senior Erika Edwards has one of the best chances of spoiling Randall's fun. Edwards finished second to Randall at the Palmer Invite.
"She's been running a lot longer than I have," said Edwards, who is in just her second season of cross country running. "She knows how to use her racing experience."
Randall's East Thunderbirds are the strong favorite to win the team title for the third straight year. Kenai won the Region III title Saturday, but coach Liz Burck doesn't expect the Kardinals to be able to catch East.
However, she thinks the state experience will be valuable for her team because it is losing only one senior.
"What we've talked about is taking that wave of momentum into this weekend and seeing how far we can carry it," Burck said. "Last year, we had some state-meet jitters and we weren't as successful as we could have been.
"We'll try again this year and see what happens."
In the Class 1-2-3A girls race, Seward and Ninilchik are qualified but would have to pull an upset to win state. No peninsula boys team qualified in the boys 1-2-3A race, but Seth Price of Seward, Josh Smith and David Boyle of Ninilchik, and Ryan Wicker and Quincy Bird of Nikiski all qualified as individuals.
ASAA State Cross Country Championship
Ninilchik -- Katie Moerien, Melissa Deiman, Gretchen Garroutte, Bridgette Cuffe, Molly Bosick, Whitney Leman, Janelle Moerlein. Seward -- Sarah Hermann, Sam Rough, Kelly Houghton, Marion Glaser, Erin Conant, Monica Fouts, Shannon Holm.
Ninilchik -- Josh Smith, David Boyle. Nikiski -- Ryan Wicker, Quincy Bird. Seward -- Seth Price.
Kenai -- Lindsey Church, Katherine Amen, Mary Krusen, Karli Knudsen, Roxanna Wilcox, Michelle Edwards, Shiloh Reilly. Skyview -- Erika Edwards, Melina Hutchison, Amy Lambe, Alecia Wood, Sam Carlon, Michelle Trumpler, Brittant Sebastain. Soldotna -- Rachel Goldstein. Homer -- Ida Martin.
Soldotna -- Andy Liebner, Brent Knight, Kyle McBride, Bill Keller, Ben Histand, Joe Blanchard, David Hernandez. Kenai -- Jacob LaShot. Homer -- Monte Garroutte.
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